Virginia Heffernan, writing in the Times magazine, takes Bruce Sterling’s SXSW talk about connectivity and poverty mainstream:
Bruce Sterling, the cyberpunk writer, proposed at the South by Southwest tech conference in Austin that the clearest symbol of poverty is dependence on “connections” like the Internet, Skype and texting. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” he said.
In his speech, Sterling seemed to affect Nietzschean disdain for regular people. If the goal was to provoke, it worked. To a crowd that typically prefers onward-and-upward news about technology, Sterling’s was a sadistically successful rhetorical strategy. “Poor folk love their cellphones!” had the ring of one of those haughty but unforgettable expressions of condescension, like the Middle Eastern gem “The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on.”
“Connectivity is poverty” was how a friend of mine summarized Sterling’s bold theme. Only the poor — defined broadly as those without better options — are obsessed with their connections. Anyone with a strong soul or a fat wallet turns his ringer off for good and cultivates private gardens that keep the hectic Web far away. The man of leisure, Sterling suggested, savors solitude, or intimacy with friends, presumably surrounded by books and film and paintings and wine and vinyl — original things that stay where they are and cannot be copied and corrupted and shot around the globe with a few clicks of a keyboard.
I think the emphasis on material goods, like fine wine and expensive art, that can’t be translated into HTML misses the deeper link between connectivity and poverty. My own experience of the internet is almost certainly warped by being a writer – I produce words, which then enter the maw of the web – but I’m nevertheless convinced that the online world magnifies and exaggerates social anxieties and insecurities. Who hasn’t googled their name? Searched for ex-girlfriends on facebook? Read snarky comments about themselves on twitter? The internet has given us a library of Borgesian proportions – we can find just about anything at anytime from anywhere – but people remain social primates, primarily concerned with their place in the tribal hierarchy. And so we end up jealous of people with higher Amazon rankings, more Twitter followers, extra Facebook friends and additional google links. We quantify visits to the blog and zealously monitor what others are saying about us. We are exposed to a brave new world of rumor, criticism and anonymous disapproval.
What does this remind me of? The stress of being poor, or at the very least the stress of being unpopular in middle school. The web has, in part, turned our social world into a positional good. Consider a fancy watch. When someone wears a Rolex, they don’t get a more accurate sense of time. Instead, they get an object that signals their social position. At the same time, they effectively raise the expectations of everybody wearing less expensive watches. These people now feel inferior, since their Timex has been devalued by the costlier item. The perfectly effective watch has been diminished by the perfectly useless positional good. This is part of the unhappiness of being poor – you constantly want what you can’t afford, if only to raise your social status.
A similar thing is happening with social networks. We’re always noticing the person who has more of what we crave, be it friends or followers or page views. The end result is a surfeit of insecurities, which approximate the stress of being broke and walking on 5th Avenue. I’m not saying a little insecurity is a bad thing – if I didn’t want more page views or more book sales I might not be writing this post – but, like anything else, it’s crucial that we’re able to turn off the insecurities when we need to, that we maintain some confidence in our social world and our place within it. And that’s the kind of confidence that comes from being able to afford a Rolex or having lots of twitter followers or being more interested in googling Romanee-Conti than your own name.
To summarize: being connected isn’t a bad thing. It’s a glorious thing. But it can be stressful, because it constantly exposes us to people who have more of what we want.